NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Monday, August 12, 2013

Learn to Stop Overspending as a Way to Avoid Uncomfortable Feelings

Overspending as a way to ward off uncomfortable feelings, like anxiety or depression, can quickly lead to being over your head in debt, which can result in increased anxiety and depression.  

Learn to Stop Overspending as a Way to Avoid Uncomfortable Feelings

Overspending Can Become a Vicious Cycle With No End in Sight
Many people get caught in a vicious cycle of increased depressive or anxiety-related symptoms and increased overspending and debt, and they don't know how to get out.

Overspending and the Dopamine Rush
It's not just a matter of avoiding uncomfortable emotions. There's also a dopamine rush.  And the dopamine rush from indulging in overspending can be similar to the rush that people get with other impulse control disorder experiences, including drug abuse, sex addiction and gambling.  The dopamine rush itself is a powerful reinforcer for this cycle.

The problem with the dopamine rush is that it's short lived, so you have to spend again to get the next "hit."  This can fuel an endless cycle of overspending to ward off uncomfortable feelings, increased uncomfortable feelings and then increased overspending, and so on.

You Don't Have to Be in Serious Debt to Have a Problem With Overspending
You don't have to be thousands of dollars in debt to have a problem.  Just like the person who has a problem with alcohol, problems with overspending usually starts small and then become increasingly worse.

Ask yourself:
"Do I tend to go shopping or engage in other excessive spending when I'm anxious, depressed, angry or experiencing other uncomfortable feelings?

If you're honest with yourself and you detect a pattern, you'll admit to yourself that you have a problem and take steps to overcome this problem.

What Can You Do to Stop Overspending?

Acknowledge You Have a Problem
The first step to overcoming the problem of overspending, like any impulse control problem, is to admit that you have a problem.

Until you admit you have a problem, you're not going to be motivated to change.

Be Aware That Denial Can Be a Powerful Defense Against Admitting You Have a Problem
Denial can be very powerful, even when people are in serious debt.  Even after people realize they have a problem, they will often bargain with themselves by telling themselves things like, "This will be the last time I'll go on a spending spree."

Increase Your Awareness of Your Overspending Habits: What's Your Pattern of Overspending?
Admitting that you have a problem is the first step.  The next step is to increase your awareness of your particular pattern.

Everyone has a particular pattern of overspending, so you'll need to pay extra close attention to discover  your pattern.

Keep a Journal
I recommend keeping a journal.

Initially, until you can stop overspending, you might be writing about your spending habits after you've engaged in overspending.  The goal is to, eventually, get the point where you've become so aware of your overspending habits that you catch yourself before you give into the impulse to overspend.

You can set up your journal in whatever way works best for you.  One way that I recommend is to track what uncomfortable emotions came up and under what circumstances so that you can see what triggers the overspending (see details given below in the scenario about Ann):

Keep a Budget
People who overspend often have little to no awareness on how they spend their money.  Part of this lack of awareness is that the overspending is compartmentalized in their mind to keep themselves from feeling the discomfort of how serious their problem really is, which is a form of denial.

When you keep a budget by writing down how much to spend on each category and then track and write down what you actually spent, it can be a real eye opener.   And this can be the beginning of getting out of denial.

Attend Debtors Anonymous
Debtors Anonymous is a 12 Step program that helps people who have problems with overspending.  People who attend Debtors Anonymous meetings provide each other with mutual support.  If you go to the link above, you can find more information about this program and a meeting that is located near you.

The following scenario, which is a composite of many different cases with all identifying information changed to protect confidentiality, is an example of how someone who was able to get help for her overspending problem:

When Ann first came to see me, she was in serious debt.  She came in because she and her husband were having marital problems because of her overspending.

Initially, Ann didn't think she had a problem with overspending.  She came because she was afraid that all the arguing between her and her husband would lead to a divorce, and she didn't want to lose her husband.  But she made no connection between their arguments and her spending habits.  She felt her husband was overreacting.

Denial was very powerful for Ann.  And, initially, when I asked Ann about her debt, her thinking became fuzzy so she couldn't remember how much in debt she was or the specific information about who she owed money to, etc.

So, I asked Ann to bring in her bills and credit card statements.  This was emotionally painful for Ann because, without realizing it, she was doing everything possible to avoid allowing herself to see how big a problem she had.  She also felt very ashamed.

With the information in hand, we were able to see that she was close to $100,000 in debt, which was shocking to Ann.  It's not that she didn't know this on some level but, until now, she kept herself from allowing this information from really sinking in emotionally.  And, as you would expect, the anxiety of allowing the information to sink made her feel like she wanted to go out and make an impulsive purchase to ward off her anxiety.

So, we worked on helping Ann to develop better coping skills because she was using the rush of overspending to ward off anxiety.  A big part of her developing coping skills, aside from getting more physical exercise and learning to meditate, was keeping a journal to track the triggers to her overspending.

Based on my recommendation on how to set up her journal to understand her pattern of overspending, Ann set up her journal with the following four columns:
  • Date and Time
  • The Trigger (or Precipitating Event):  What Was Going on at the Time?
  • What Emotion Goes With the Trigger?
  • How Did I Overspend?
Then, she wrote a narrative about how she felt about this incident of overspending.

When she first began writing in her journal, Ann was writing about the event after the fact most of the time because she was still struggling with her impulse to overspend.

Developing an awareness before she gave into her impulse was very challenging at first.

But even after she was more aware and she realized that she was about to give into the impulse, she would bargain with herself by telling herself that "this would be the last time."  Unfortunately, there were many so-called "last times" before she could get to the point where she could catch herself before she gave into the impulse.

Eventually, Ann was able to write in her journal when she got the urge to overspend and she learned not to give in most of the time.

The challenge after that was for Ann to deal with the uncomfortable feelings that were at the start of her impulsive cycles of overspending, and we did this in her therapy.

Learning to Cope: Developing the Capacity to Tolerate Uncomfortable Feelings
Since the impulse to ward off uncomfortable feelings is usually at the beginning of the cycle of overspending, developing an ability to identify them and the capacity to tolerate uncomfortable feelings is an important part of the work in therapy.

During the course of a lifetime, everyone experiences loss, small trauma and, for many people, big trauma.  If, for whatever reason, you never developed the capacity to tolerate uncomfortable feelings, you can be at risk for engaging in impulsive behavior.  And if you're already engaging in impulsive behavior, it's harder to stop until you develop this capacity.

Getting Help
Along with attending Debtors Anonymous, many people have been helped by working with a licensed psychotherapist who has an expertise in helping people who have problems with overspending, especially when they're attempting to deal with their emotional triggers.

If you have problems with overspending, you owe it to yourself and your loved ones to get help.  Avoiding the problem will only result in the problem getting worse since, like most impulse control problems, problems with overspending is progressive and gets worse over time.

Getting help from a licensed therapist can help you to lead a more satisfying and meaningful life.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

I have helped many people to overcome their impulsive habits, including overspending, so they can lead more fulfilling lives.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.